Medicinal Milk Thistle – harvesting and preparation

Remedios de Ledoux

Milk Thistle is a herbaceous annual or biennial plant with a dense prickly flower head and reddish-purple tubular flowers. It is native to the Mediterranean region and has been naturalized in Central Europe, North and South America and South Australia.

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Related to the Daisy and Ragweed family, one of the active ingredients in milk thistle is silymarin, which is a flavonoid believed to have antioxidant properties.

Milk thistle has an extensive history of use as an edible plant. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder reported it’s use for supporting liver health. Theophrastus (IV century BC) and Dioscorides (1st century AD) also wrote of it’s value. The English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1650) claimed it was effective for supporting normal function of the liver.

Much of  modern day research has been conducted in Germany.

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Milk thistle grows in open areas. If you are thinking of harvesting this herb, look to the fields, meadows, marginal lands, fence lines and along roadsides. As always, avoid areas where pesticide sprays may have been used. Flower heads (the part used) ripen August to September and most plants may be harvested multiple times.

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While most people mainly use the herb for liver conditions it has many other healthful properties.

Liver Support. Milk thistle helps to rebuild the liver cells while effectively reversing the harmful effects of things like pesticide in our food, heavy metals in water, pollution in the air, and alcohol or drug consumption.

Kidney Health. The benefit of milk thistle on the kidneys have often been reported to closely mirror the herb’s effect on the liver.

Lowering High Cholesterol. This beneficial herb supports heart health by lowering high cholesterol levels and raises “good” or HDL cholesterol as well as reducing inflammation and preventing oxidative stress damage to arteries.

Preventing or Controlling Diabetes. A 2006 study found those who took silymarin (the active ingredient of Milk T.) for four months were found to have experienced profile improvements and a reduction in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

Prevent Gallstones. Milk thistle can aid in purifying the body of metabolic waste, which in turn regulates the functioning of the gall bladder as well as the spleen and kidneys.

Revive skin condition. The  anti-inflammatory, detoxifying and demulcent properties can improve visible signs of aging and improve skin condition.

Anti-Aging. The powerful antioxidants  in milk thistle prevent free radical damage.

The Mayo Clinic presents this evidence of milk thistle research in use for specific conditions :

  • Diabetes. Milk thistle might lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Indigestion (Dyspepsia). Milk thistle, in combination with other supplements, might improve the symptoms of indigestion.
  • Liver Disease. Research on the effects of milk thistle on liver disease, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis C,, has shown mixed results.

The words of the Mayo Clinic are carefully chosen but it is clear, the research done on just a few specific conditions shows that something worthwhile is there.

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Milk thistle is sold as an oral capsule, tablet, powder and liquid extract. You can purchase milk thistle at health food stores, pharmacies and other retailers…or… you can harvest your own.

The sharp spiky leaves can easily penetrate the skin so a sturdy pair of gardening or leather gloves are essential. A sharp pair of pruning shears and a paper sack or collecting bag is all else needed.

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The flowerhead is ready to harvest when it has a full fluffy white appearance.

With the shears, cut the stem at the base of the flowerhead and let it fall into your collecting bag. Once home put the harvest in a paper sack and place it in a warm place where the flowers can dry completely, usually in five to seven days. When thoroughly dry dump the flowers into a small burlap or course canvas sack. To separate the seed shake the sack vigorously. Then with your palms apply pressure to the bundle to further separate the seeds. Next you will need a dry clean bucket. Place the bucket outside and slowly pour the seeds from your sack into the bucket. The chaff should blow away. Any debris left in the seeds can be picked out. Store the seeds in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.

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The most common ways to take advantage of milk thistle are as a tea. Crush about a teaspoon of seeds and place in a muslin bag or tea ball and steep in hot water for  five minutes. If making a pot, figure a spoon full of seeds equals one cup, which is about the number of seeds collected from one flower.

Powered is another way to use milk thistle seeds. Simply crush the seeds into a powder that can be sprinkled on salads, soups, cereal and burgers. To use the seeds in a smoothie, soak the seeds in water overnight add a little lemon juice and mix with whatever recipe you have in mind. The seeds can also be eaten as a snack, dry as is.

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The Mother Earth provides for all of our needs. Be gentle.

For your health eat local flowers. How nice is that?

Peace, Dohn

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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